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Cecil Hurt: Conspiracy theories abound with release of updated SEC football opponents

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

This story originally published Aug. 9.

There was a lot of complaining on Friday night that someone at the poker table was dealing from the bottom of the deck. There was also concern that the whole game was being played in a house of cards regardless.

The SEC announced its two additional cross-divisional opponents for football teams in 2020 on Friday afternoon. There were only two possible outcomes — either Alabama and Florida would be playing each other or conspiracy theories would immediately flourish like mold in a damp basement. The latter is what occurred. Alabama, it was announced, would play Missouri and Kentucky. Every other SEC fan base (except the Gators) started with the predictable howls of “bias,” the same howls that have been going on for 60 years. (One wonders what would have happened if the internet had existed when Paul W. "Bear" Bryant ran the league.)

Dec 1, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; A general view of the SEC logo prior to the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a quick synopsis of the SEC process. You have to take the long view, not the short, even if a Nick Saban/Dan Mullen Alliance of Evil — like Thanos and Pennywise teaming up — is a fun image. If the SEC office’s purpose was for every team to play as close to .500 as possible, that would have fostered one type of schedule, with all the top teams given every opportunity to lose. We would have Alabama vs. Florida and Georgia vs. LSU, too. But if your purpose is to have a team in the College Football Playoff, which means money, you take a different route.

That’s why Alabama and Florida and LSU and Georgia and Auburn came up with the schedules they did, taxing ones but not suicidal. Because if you play out the hypothetical “season” and look at the schedules of Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State, you understand that the rest of the nation is essentially playing for one spot. A one-time expansion of the College Football Playoff would have solved this, but unprecedented times apparently call for entrenched institutions, as cautious as tortoises, to shun any sort of innovation. Under the current circumstances, a max-difficulty schedule for the top teams increases the likelihood that a hypothetical champion could easily emerge from the hypothetical championship game at 9-2. With no interconference games to use for comparison, what happens then if Oregon is sitting at 10-1, for instance? Or if Notre Dame and Clemson split a regular-season matchup and the ACC title game and both finish 11-1?

That’s not much fun conspiracy theories go but it does explain more. I’m not arguing that it worked out well for everyone. Arkansas, for instance, got the full preparation for being cooked, aside from the symbolic apple in its mascot’s mouth.

Nominally, the next issue for the SEC is releasing the 2020 schedule. By the time that happens, more leagues may have it seemed folded on the season like the MAC did on Saturday morning. The Big Ten, which raced to be first with everything including a September 5 start, tapped the brakes Saturday by postponing the start of full-contact practice, but did not call a full halt. There is still a huge amount of money at stake for Power Five schools and for communities like Tuscaloosa, which faces economic catastrophe if a full shutdown comes. The SEC will hang on as long as possible but there is also real reservation on the part of players who deserve “yes” or “no”answers in order to make fully-informed opt-out decisions. Most players want to play, if social media is a measure, but those decisions need to be logical, not just emotional. If schools attempt to put players on the field without those answers, there will be backlash. So that’s a consideration as well.

No one is “pulling” for coronavirus, but not everyone thinks that the virus will magically disappear either and people who point that out aren’t committing some sort of college football treason.

We may see an SEC schedule in the coming week. Hopes may rise, or fall. We may just see the flickering neon of “closed” signs at SEC stadiums. The presidents seem to face a new decision with every decision they make — and it isn’t over yet.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt